The trial of Harvard professor Dr. Charles Lieber, who allegedly concealed his ties to a Chinese university and the Chinese government's Thousand Talents Program while receiving U.S. government funding, began this week, a possible bellwether for the future of the Justice Department's China Initiative.

Lieber, the former chairman of the department of chemistry and chemical biology at Harvard University, received $15 million in grant funding from the National Institutes of Health and the Pentagon over the years before being arrested and charged in January 2020 with crimes including false statements. He was hit with a superseding indictment for falsely reporting on income tax returns related to his role as a “strategic scientist” at the Wuhan University of Technology and his lucrative participation in the Thousand Talents Program. The DOJ says the Chinese program is "designed to attract, recruit, and cultivate high-level scientific talent in furtherance of China’s scientific development, economic prosperity, and national security."

Lieber maintains his innocence, and the jury selection began Tuesday in a Boston federal courtroom.

The China Initiative, launched by the Trump DOJ in 2018, aims to push back on Chinese economic espionage in the United States, with a particular focus on rooting out academics concealing their ties to China. The effort has come under fire from some academics and Democrats, while Republicans have suggested Attorney General Merrick Garland is not conducting the initiative vigorously enough.

The DOJ said that under Lieber’s three-year Thousand Talents contract, the Wuhan University of Technology paid him a salary of up to $50,000 per month and awarded him more than $1.5 million to establish a research lab at the Chinese school. Prosecutors argue Lieber repeatedly lied to federal investigators.

Andrew Lelling, then-U.S. attorney for the District of Massachusetts, touted his office’s case against Lieber during a February 2020 conference. He said the China Initiative aimed at raising awareness at schools so that “maybe next time an academic does not lie about his connections to a Chinese program or maybe next time an academic at that institution thinks twice or thinks a little bit harder about their collaboration with a Chinese institution.”

But Lelling, now a partner at Jones Day, changed his tune after the recent publishing of an MIT Technology Review article titled “The U.S. crackdown on Chinese economic espionage is a mess. We have the data to show it.”

“The Initiative has drifted and, in some significant ways, lost its focus,” Lelling wrote on his LinkedIn in December. “DOJ should revamp, and shut down, parts of the program, to avoid needlessly chilling scientific and business collaborations with Chinese partners.”


An open letter from 177 Stanford University professors, which was eventually endorsed by hundreds of other professors at multiple schools, claimed the initiative "is harming the United States’ research and technology competitiveness and it is fueling biases.”

Despite criticism, the China Initiative has resulted in numerous successful prosecutions.

FBI Director Christopher Wray said last year that the bureau has more than 2,000 active investigations that trace back to China, half of which are related directly to intellectual property theft while the other half are a variety of counterintelligence investigations.

“There’s no country that presents a broader, more comprehensive threat to America’s innovation, to our economic security, and to our democratic ideas than China does,” Wray said.

A group of Republican senators called upon Garland in May not to implement an “amnesty program” they said the Justice Department was considering under which researchers at U.S. colleges and universities could disclose past foreign funding, including from China, without fear of prosecution.

In a reversal, the DOJ dropped a half-dozen cases against Chinese military researchers in July after it had accused them of lying on their visas. DOJ spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle said it was "in the interest of justice."

The Lieber case is being presided over by U.S. District Judge Rya Zobel, who set $1 million bail and ordered him and his wife to surrender their passports in January 2020. The professor was placed on indefinite paid leave by Harvard after his arrest.

Other defendants in China Initiative cases headed for trial will be watching the results of the Lieber prosecution closely. Zhengdong Cheng, Simon Ang, and Feng “Franklin” Tao have trials slated for 2022.

Cheng, a professor at Texas A&M University, was arrested in August 2020 on charges of conspiracy, making false statements, and wire fraud for receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in NASA research grants while allegedly concealing his Thousand Talents connection and hiding that he was also the director of the Soft Matter Institute at the Guangdong University of Technology and a professor at the Academy for Advanced Interdisciplinary Studies at Southern University of Science and Technology in China.

Ang, a University of Arkansas professor who received millions of dollars of grant research money from the U.S. government, including $500,000 from NASA, was arrested in July 2020 while also allegedly being a secret participant in the Thousand Talents Program and concealing his business dealings in China.


Tao, a University of Kansas researcher, was charged with fraud for concealing that he was working for Fuzhou University in China while doing research in the U.S. with funding through the Department of Energy contracts and the National Science Foundation.